Out of Africa: Thesis research takes Schreyer Scholar to Madagascar

Jenny Kim
March 28, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When people hear that Kate Thompson went to Madagascar last summer, they think she stepped into a cartoon adventure.

And Thompson will agree that the lemurs she was studying for her honors thesis are indeed cute and cuddly. But her study of the species has a serious purpose.

“I focused my research on the aye-aye species,” said Thompson, a senior in Penn State's Schreyer Honors College double majoring in anthropology in the College of the Liberal Arts and community, environment and development in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “Aye-ayes are solitary animals that only come out at night and are very ‘antisocial’ in the sense they need massive areas of land to live comfortably. The aye-aye are very interesting because they’re like primate woodpeckers. They tap on a tree and then listen on the inside to find bugs. They are a highly endangered species, and I do research on them in hopes of aiding conservation efforts.”

It wasn’t the 2005 animated feature film that set Thompson on the path to Madagascar but rather entrance into a research lab her first year on campus. Thompson worked in an archaeology lab with the late Brian Hesse, a professor of Jewish studies, anthropology and ancient Mediterranean studies.

“He inspired me to look at study abroad programs dealing in human-wildlife interactions,” Thompson said. “Working with Dr. Hesse I realized I like doing work with ancient animals, but doing study abroad in Kenya and Tanzania taught me I also like working with modern-day animals too. So I came back and worked with Dr. George Perry. We created the thesis project. I then went abroad and learned the techniques that are used for conservation and wildlife management.”

Unlike other travels abroad led by a Penn State faculty member or in the company of other students, Thompson went to Madagascar first with her professor and then alone in collaboration with the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership, a nongovernmental organization focused on community-based conservation and research created and led by Edward Louis Jr. of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Neb. In 2008, the program’s field station in Kianjavato began tracking the aye-ayes with Penn State among its research collaborators.

Thompson worked with a team of field assistants. The group would hike day and night, rain or shine, to look at the different variables determining where an aye-aye chooses to eat.

“We went out with a massive machine that had really long spikes,” she said. “We would hammer the machine into the trees, and it listens to how fast the sound goes from one spike to another. It lets you see how rotted a tree is by making an acoustic map of the tree’s insides. We tested ones the aye-aye ate and ones they skipped to see if there was a difference.”

For Thompson, it was important that her thesis research have tangible findings that could be applied long after she returned home.

“I hope I can do something that builds the community instead of just doing research, coming in and leaving,” Thompson said. “I think we’re at a time where there needs to be change. Now it’s time to make a different integrated effort.”

Thompson wants to continue to do extensive research because the species’ future is at great risk.

“Believe it or not, 20 percent of the world’s primates live in Madagascar, and 94 percent of these lemurs are threatened or endangered. Worse still, Madagascar only has about 10 percent of its forest left.” Thompson said. “This is why this research is so important to me. A long time ago, there was a bigger aye-aye that lived in Madagascar but went extinct. I want to see how far they went and what they were eating. At the same time I want to do a two-part dissertation where I look at variation in aye-aye feeding behavior across the island and across evolutionary history.”

“Kate has done extremely well,” said George Perry, assistant professor of anthropology in the College of the Liberal Arts and biology in the Eberly College of Science. “She’s very passionate about ecology, conservation and also about working in foreign countries and interacting with the local people. It’s clear how important it is for her – that’s obvious from the moment you start talking to her.”

Thompson’s commitment to connecting with people ran into some challenges when she first arrived in Madagascar and faced some culture shock.

“It’s very difficult to navigate your identity as a white person trying to fit in,” Thompson said. “It was confusing and frustrating trying to fit into a new culture. It was challenging to balance relating to my team — who are also my peers — while being a figure of authority. If you go in there and act like you know everything, you’re not going to be included in part of the community. I realized it was going to be difficult, but I decided I wanted to learn the manners, dialect and culture. I had to start like a baby and be humble enough to learn everything”

Thompson eventually gained acceptance to the point where she was invited to the wedding of one her teammates.

“I received a thank-you gift after going to the wedding,” Thompson said. “My new ‘sister-in-law’s’ parents gave me a chicken, a real live chicken, and I named it Britney Spears because they absolutely love Britney Spears. Her pictures are everywhere!”

With the research she completed in Madagascar, Thompson said her short-term goal is to finish her honors thesis.

“I want to finish my thesis and finish it well,” she said. “My thesis is my identity as a student — my identity that I’ve gone into the field, conducted my own research and designed my own experiments. Long-term, I would love to get my doctorate in anthropology. I would also love to become a college professor and have my own field site that does both research and community development employing local people as guides, educating families and providing health care. My team jokingly called me ‘Momma.’ They said they believed in my dreams of having my own field site and hoped to work with me there one day.”

“I think she’s going to be very successful,” said Paula Hesse, senior lecturer of Jewish studies and classics and ancient Mediterranean studies whose late husband launched Thompson on her research travels. “I imagine her at a research institution or university. She’s going to be doing something she really enjoys. I think it’s wonderful if you can be that interested and always amazed at what you’re doing.”

Thompson is excited about what the future holds.

 “I have a lot of faith going forward,” Thompson said. “Because of Schreyer my value and efforts are going noticed, and that doesn’t happen everywhere. I am a very proud student of all the opportunities this has given me. I’m going to by very excited to wear the Schreyer medal (at commencement).”

  • Kate Thompson is a Schreyer Honors College senior majoring in anthropology.

    Kate Thompson, a senior in the Schreyer Honors College, credits her travels to Madagascar to conduct her honors thesis research with preparing her for graduate studies. Thompson, who is majoring in anthropology in the College of the Liberal Arts and community, environment and development in the College of Agricultural Sciences, plans to earn her doctorate and then teach and head a research lab. 

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated May 15, 2014